As I sat sipping tea in the elegantly appointed senior’s common room at Magdalene College in Oxford, sharing anecdotes about Muslim intellectuals with Dr. Farhan Nizami the Director of the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies, I kept reflecting about Edward Gibbon. Gibbon, who was an alumnus of the Magdalene College, authored The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in mid eighteenth century.
In that magnum opus Gibbon wrote that, if the Franks had not won the battle of Portiers in 733 — “perhaps the interpretation of the Quran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet (Muhammad, peace be upon him).”
Remembering what he wrote, I wondered what his response would be, if he were to now take a tour of Oxford. Islam is present and thriving in Oxford University and in Oxford city. Oxford is clearly one of the most enlightened cities in the world, with it’s over 30 very old and very distinguished colleges and boasting of some of the finest minds in nearly every field as part of its citizenry. Add to this the spectacular domes and tall minarets of the two big mosques in Oxford and the picture of a virtuous city is complete. Gibbon would have been surprised to learn the lesson that military defeats do not stop the advance of civilisations and the globalisation of Islam is unimpeded by the material and military weaknesses of the Muslim world.
Oxford in spite of its quintessentially English character is a very un-English place. A lot of its inhabitants besides the students appear to be immigrants, from either South Asia or Eastern Europe. In fact, the nicest couple that I met and befriended in Oxford was American. They have been living there for decades.
Oxford is a small college town, but it has nearly 7000 Muslims, majority of whom are of South Asian origin. It has five Muslims in the city council, dozens of Muslim scholars in the various colleges of Oxford, four mosques and more halal restaurants on any of its main streets than the entire state of Delaware in the US, which also has roughly the same number of Muslims.
Muslims in Oxford look happy, reasonably prosperous, and are well integrated, unlike the majority of Muslims in Britain who are poor, less educated, underemployed, socially marginalised, culturally segregated and politically alienated. They are primarily engaged in small businesses with cab driving, real estate and restaurants as the main areas of employment. I was informed, rather proudly by a cab driver, that of the hundred odd black cabs in Oxford, over ninety are driven by Englishmen of Pakistani origins.
The Muslims of Oxford were very hospitable. They opened their hearts and minds and also the doors to the mosque’s board meeting to me. I discovered that their challenges too are so much like those we face everywhere; how to combat Islamophobia, how to reach out to neighbours and local leaders, how to engage the youth and keep them away from radicalism, and how to raise funds for the new carpets. Their problems were also similar: how to bridge the gap between the older immigrant and the younger native generations, how to open more opportunities for women, without angering the traditionalists or dividing the community and how to find more Imams who can speak in English.
I met the older leaders and prayed that they would retire soon. I also met with many younger men and women, and hoped they would lead very soon. My guess is that the transitional period will be a little awkward, but the future of Muslims in Oxford looks bright.
I was in Oxford briefly as a visiting scholar at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. The Centre, whose patron is Prince Charles, was established in 1985 and under the leadership of Dr. Nizami, seeks to build bridges between the Islamic world and the contemporary West.
The Centre for Islamic Studies is clearly the jewel in Oxford’s crown. It is not only a centre for higher learning, very much in tune with the pace and standards of Oxford, but is also a venue for civilisational diplomacy. In this age, when Islam and the West are engaged in complex negotiations about the role of Islam and Muslims in the West and of the West in the Muslim world, the centre is an important venue where scholars from both the world’s can meet and engage.
The centre’s new building which is under construction is according to my American friend in Oxford, Michael C., “easily the most spectacular architectural, not to mention intellectual, addition to Oxford in over two hundred years”. And indeed it is. When complete the centre has the potential to become a hub for Western-Islamic relations and scholarship. In its elegant and august environment, scholars and diplomats could genuinely find a place for Islam in the West that enriches the West culturally and spiritually and revitalises the spirit of compassion, tolerance and universal brotherhood among Muslims.
In the past year or so I have travelled across Europe, from Ireland to Germany, to France, to Belgium and to England trying to understand how Muslims are doing there. Everywhere I was disturbed by their poverty and alienation, but in Oxford I found much happiness.
My only regret though is how few Muslims from Oxford city study at Oxford University. The Prophet of Islam encouraged Muslims to go all the way to China if they had to in pursuit of higher learning; I wish more Muslims in Oxford would go across the street.